BOSTON — What can parents do to protect their children?
"Parents must be aware of what their kids are doing on the computer and who they are hooking up with," says Laura Quarantiello, author of the book "Cyber Crime: How to Protect Yourself From Computer Criminals."
"Be aware of what your child is doing and be a part of it," she says. "And let your child know what the threats are. It is pretty much the same advice you would give your child about talking to strangers on the street."
Many experts say that parents must not only discuss with their children the risks of talking to strangers on the Internet, but parents must be technologically proficient enough to understand how and when such contact might take place.
"Parents are not as savvy as their children when it comes to the Internet," says Ruben Rodriguez, director of the exploited child unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "We encourage parents to learn about the Internet and computers so they can understand the lingo and how the internet works."
Mr. Rodriguez says parents and others can report suspected incidents of child sexual exploitation on the Internet via the center's Web site at missingkids.com/cybertip, or via telephone at 800-843-5678.
"You have to talk to your children about it," says Gene Weinschenk of the US Customs Cyber Smuggling Center.
He adds that parents need to remain vigilant, even at home. "Many parents have a false sense of security believing that if I am sitting in my living room and watching TV and my child is behind me on the internet that all is well with the world," he says. "But they aren't safe."
Mr. Weinschenk says parents should investigate whether to activate programs that can lock a home computer out of "adult" oriented Web sites and chat rooms. In addition, filtering software is available that can broaden the blockade to a wider range of potentially offensive sites.
Despite the potential dangers, Weinschenk warns parents against overreacting. He says the worst response by a parent would be to bar a child from ever using or exploring the Internet.
Larry Foust of the FBI says parents should never allow their children to have unsupervised access to the Internet. The computer should be set up in a public area of the home rather than a child's bedroom, and parents must stress to their children that they never arrange a face-to-face- meeting with someone they meet on the Internet.